LESSONS FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL • by James Anthony Mehrle, Jr.

In the Eighth Grade at a Catholic School in Columbus, Ohio as I neared the age of fourteen, I had a couple things going for me. One, I knew a lot of stuff, primarily anything that had nothing to do with my studies. Two, I was a dreamer. I had already read The Day of the Jackal, The Exorcist, The Drifters, and Message from Malaga — all New York Times best-selling books and before Thanksgiving. I also loved French films, having only seen one, Rendezvous at Bray. The real notch on my belt, though, was my knowledge of the turbulent era — this being 1971.

I had heroes as any boy does. Mine ranged from Muhammad Ali to Pete Rose to Bobby Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr. I knew who Fidel Castro was and didn’t hate him. I understood, from reading the paper, of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which had been ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court, ultimately promoting integration in the public schools via busing. I mourned King Curtis’s death. Elmer Fudd was usually the high point of my Saturday mornings. And I was the star running back on our varsity football team that went 0-10 — naively hoping to be the next Jim Brown, though I was perhaps 5’5”, most likely not even 110 lbs, and Caucasian.  

With all these wondrous assortments aimlessly swimming in my head it would be the only whatchamacallit that I needed to survive my biggest challenge — to this point. Our class were members of the Saint Dominic Salvo National Club. Each month one boy and one girl would be nominated as the Saint Dominic Salvo of the month. There’d be a couple of days of campaigning and then the big vote would transpire. The problem was no one ran except one girl and one boy — each month. It was always the same two — never needing to campaign, or even vote. They were good kids — never in trouble, fitting the image of Saint Dominic Salvo as Our Lord in Heaven would want. Our teacher, a chain smoking balding older fellow, conceived a silly notion that we needed to comprehend the importance of a democracy. He announced to the class that he wanted others to toss their hat into the ring and run to be Saint Dominic Salvo of the month. He journeyed into some verbal tirade about men dying so that we had this opportunity to elect our leaders, in this fantastic idea called democracy. The baffling connection, at least for me, was tying the similarities together of an elected official such as the President and the symbolic nod of being Saint Dominic Salvo of the month. His rant only intensified as his patriotic intent multiplied like germs following a sneeze. I got it, though. I was feeling him.

The man struck a chord with me. I went home that night and recited the question over and over in my head “Was I Saint Dominic Salvo of the month material?” The short answer was no. The longer version was a challenge sat on the table and someone had to bite. My mind swirled into a host of the usual abnormal directions before I could see the face of the boy who always won because he never had to campaign, and never had another name on the ballot against him. In this moment I knew he was by far a more observant Catholic than I would ever be — but his smugness was seeping out and I smelled it, or was that my mother’s unattended goulash on the stove over a high flame?

What would Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, Bobby Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr. do? How would the French write it in a film? I decided to toss my hat into the ring. When I told my parents, my father laughed. My Mother only nodded “… that’s nice.”

My announcement the next day in front of the class took a cue from my father — a roar of laughter — the real stuff — loud and piercing — nothing like the canned laughs from television. Even our chain smoking, balding teacher who inspired me with his challenge dropped his head and laughed before quickly gathering his composure. I was humiliated but I couldn’t show it. I was about to hit the campaign trail and couldn’t show any weakness. I manned up and went back to my desk — owning the zone I had just secured myself in.

The campaign began. Off I went to a novelty store, buying a handshaking buzzer that slipped onto your ring finger. When you’re not the best candidate, you have to add diversions. The last day allowed for campaigning I journeyed to the girls’ line during a bathroom break to shake some hands. The girls loved it. But there was a nearby raging nun who saw my tactics as criminal. I lost my buzzer, was slapped in the face, and had my shirt ripped at the collar as I tried to pull away from her onslaught.

The day of the vote finally arrived. Out of twenty-five votes, I got twenty-two. I was the new Saint Dominic Salvo of the month by a landslide.

Our membership in the club was forfeited following that afternoon in 1971. Our chain-smoking balding teacher proclaimed we had bastardized the sanctity it all represented and, in the process, corrupted the bubble of democracy. What, because I won? I sat in the room; head high, hardly embarrassed — simply knowing the French would have written it just like this.

James Anthony Mehrle, Jr., originally born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, always had a need to expose his inner wordsmith. He would go on to serve in the US Army during the turbulent 70’s. He would find NYC on Halloween night in 1983 and never leave. His need to write escalated. He would find true love with a Brooklynite who had five children. They would marry and eventually have a delightfully talented son of their own (Ah! How they grow TOO fast!). His procrastination, already somewhat of an issue, only grew as the need to survive for himself and his family became the focus. But whenever the battle to drown his procrastination resurfaces, it does so with a vengeance. He enjoys the challenge of a blank page.

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